I come from a nation of tea drinkers and yet I realise I know practically nothing about tea. The other day I ran out of the English Breakfast teabags that I habitually plonk into the pot at 7.00 in the morning. Coincidentally I later passed a newish shop selling teas and coffees. Oxalis, in Bath, is a Czech retailer specialising in Čaj and Káva – I think that’s tea and coffee in Czech.
I told them I wanted to buy an alternative to my usual teabags and that I drink my tea without milk. Three big glass jars were produced, half full of tea leaves for me to sniff and savour. I chose one, black tea from Assam. It smelt lively and fresh; I also bought a little bell-like tea infuser on a chain. In the morning, eyes half open, it was a bit of a struggle. First you have to get the little bell to open! Then you have to get the tea into it – those little rolled up leaves just get everywhere. Then it takes at least twice as long for the tea to infuse and that disrupts the whole breakfast routine. But is it worth it? You bet. Wow. It’s as if I had been drinking tea through a sock previously. There’s a clarity of taste and a depth of flavour that is in a whole new order of experience. I don’t know enough about the vocabulary of tea tasting to be able to describe it well, but it was just what I wanted to start the day, like a strong clear musical note.
It does take longer to infuse, but when you empty out the little bell you realise why – a couple of pinches of tea have expanded to fill the entire infuser, and swelled right back to their original shapes.
I thought I would find out a bit about tea and discovered an excellent and concise explanation at Stash. Whilst browsing in Oxalis I had airily mentioned that I usually drank Broken Orange Pekoe. They didn’t have any. I thought BOP was a variety of tea. It isn’t. It’s a grade. And it’s pronounced Peck-oh.
Briefly, all tea comes from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. Names like Darjeeling and Assam and Keemun indicate the region in which it is grown. There are no varieties, only grades of leaf picked. Picking is by hand or by machine. The best is picked by hand. Leaves are graded according to whether they are whole, or torn, or broken etc. According to what happens to the leaf after it has been picked you get black tea, green tea, oolong and white tea.
The grading system for black tea is fantastic! Orange Pekoe is a whole leaf tea where the leaves are of a generous size. The top grade is Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe 1 – it has nothing to do with oranges but all the rest of the words mean what they say. So the top grade of black tea would by SFTGFOP1.
Years ago when I was in Sri Lanka, a great tea growing nation, they showed us around the tea grading house and told us gently that what goes into English tea bags is the dust, the sweepings. That’s a grade – and mostly it tastes like it.